Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) urged lawmakers to push ahead with cannabis legalization in the next legislative session, and ensure the state leads the way with the reform measure in the South.

“There are 15 or so other states that have moved toward legalizing marijuana,” Northam said on WAMU radio’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show. “Virginia will be the first in the South, but we tend to be leaders, and now that’s what we’re going to do this year. And we’re going to do it the right way.”

Gov. Northam discusses marijuana legalization from around 8:10 into the audio recording.

Northam campaigned on a platform to decriminalize marijuana – which he accomplished earlier this year – but had stopped short of endorsing full legalization. That is, until recently when a legislative commission charged with providing recommendations on the potential rules and regulations of a legal cannabis market in Virginia released its report. It found marijuana legalization would result in an 84 percent reduction in arrests for marijuana offenses, create 11,000 jobs within five years and bring in between $150 million and $300 million in annual tax revenue.

“Marijuana laws have been based originally in discrimination, and undoing those harms means things like social equity licenses, access to capital, community reinvestment and sealing or expunging people’s prior records,” Northam said in the wake of the commission’s findings.

Northam went into greater detail on the policy change during his radio interview, arguing for social equity to be built in to the marijuana industry while pandering to voter fears by reassuring that he “as a pediatrician certainly want[s] to protect our youth.”

On the issue of allowing home cultivation of marijuana, Northam said he remains undecided.

“[Y]ou could make the argument or the point that we’re able to brew beer in our home, why not grow marijuana?” the governor said. “I’ve heard that. I understand that. But it’s something that, again, we want to do this the right way. There’s going to be a lot of people at the table to discuss how we move forward. And that’s certainly a part of the discussion that we will undertake as we move forward with this.”

He said he would look into what other states have done with regards to home cultivation to inform his decision. So far, the majority of states with legal recreational marijuana have allowed people to grow their own plants at home.

Aside from decriminalizing marijuana, Virginia legislators have been busy with a raft of other cannabis-related bills. This includes a measure to prohibit law enforcement from carrying out stop and searches of a vehicle on the basis of smelling marijuana, as well as minor reforms such as the expansion of expungement for cannabis-related offenses.

Northam cautioned that recent steps toward marijuana reform in Virginia does not guarantee success for full cannabis legalization, and that in any case the measure is “not going to happen overnight.”

Still, top Virginia lawmakers remain cautiously optimistic about marijuana legalization’s prospects. Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (S) said its chances of passing in the next session were “slightly better than 50-50,” while House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said it stood a “good chance” of happening.

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